To err is human

to recover from a failed project is divine




Blame it on a communication breakdown, poor up-front planning or insufficient resources. Whatever the cause, some projects fail—and the aftermath can have a devastating effect on a project manager's career. Sometimes all it takes is one effort gone awry to leave project professionals dejected, demoted or even unemployed.

“Failure hits hard and deep when it comes,” warns Simon Robertson, PMP, project manager and trainer at Robertson Consulting, a project management training and consulting firm in Stockbridge, Hampshire, England. “It's likely to send a project manager into a spiral of depression for a while, certainly the first time. And it can cause a real crisis of confidence, which can be equally debilitating.”

The effects of a botched initiative reverberate far and wide.

A project wildly over-budget and off-schedule affects the entire team. Poor morale, lack of motivation, pessimism and lost admiration for a project leader are all common byproducts of an unsuccessful endeavor.

“A failure can change a team's perception of you,” says Cristiana Ercoli, an associate at Value Partners Management Consulting in Rome, Italy. “If a project manager has done a good job of creating a strong team, those team members will also feel like part of the failure.”

In addition, a failed project can severely harm a project manager's chances of landing a new job. A poorly executed project is often seen as a black mark on a résumé, casting doubt on a candidate's skills and efficiency.

“A project failure can definitely impact someone's career with respect to how people might look at them for future work, hold them accountable or question their ability to handle additional responsibility,” says Kelly O’Neill Dwight, PMP, a principal at NextGen Marketing Group in Denver, Colorado, USA, which specializes in market strategy and project management consulting services. “It can be very damaging.”

Sometimes “Success” Can Be Failure

I've been part of a project team that was a failure, but the project itself was "successful." There was no risk management, no defined project plan (only an end result), and no measurement of success or failure. Once the project was over, everyone clapped their hands at a good execution and got to something else. Lessons learned weren't recorded or applied to future projects. Luckily, this project was of a small magnitude, and the major risks didn't come to fruition.

It was "successful" according to management, but a failure for the project team.

Vaughan Callender, PMP, contract manager and researcher, Tecmotiv Corp., Toronto, Ontario, Canada


What's your take? Head to the PMI Troubled Projects Community of Practice at


A project professional doesn't have to live in the shadow of failure, though. There are steps you can take to fully recover from an unsuccessful effort.

Start by figuring out what went wrong.

“A best practice is to go back and do a retrospective of the failed project for lessons learned and a review of why the project didn't perform, and form recommendations about what to do next time,” Ms. Dwight says.

That lessons-learned process is essential to move beyond failure, says Marc Blanchette, PMP, director of program management for Equitrac, a Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based print management and cost recovery software company. Ask yourself:

  • What did I do wrong?
  • Was there anything I could have attacked differently as a project manager?

Conducting a thorough post-mortem allows you to gain clarity on how and why the processes and/or people failed on the project.

Don't take it personally—but do take responsibility.

“Be honest and realistic about yourself and your personal weaknesses,” Mr. Robertson says. “The sooner you recognize what went wrong and accept your part in it, the faster you'll be able to head back to confidence and, ultimately, success.”

Manage your anger.

Few project failures end amicably. A software implementation project that runs US$100,000 over budget or a corporate merger that leads to high attrition rates, for example, can culminate in finger-pointing, screaming matches, false accusations and name-calling.

The healing process can sometimes feel insurmountable.

“Recovery is tough,” Mr. Robertson says. “It means facing your own demons. In order to move on, you need to pass through the anger. You have to acknowledge your part and forgive those who have, in your mind, abused your trust or let you down.”

Talk it out.

Rather than ruminate, share your thoughts and concerns with a trusted friend or colleague. This can help you gain valuable third-party insight into the challenges faced and the mistakes made.

“Peers, community members or mentors can help project managers gain perspective after a project fails so that they won't repeat the same mistakes in the future,” Ms. Dwight says.

When applying for a job, don't leave off failures.

As tempting as it might be to forgo sharing unsuccessful initiatives, honesty is the best policy, Ms. Dwight says.

“Be transparent about the circumstances if there were mistakes made and provide what learning came out of the experience,” she recommends. “Admit if it's the first time you ever attempted a task, and talk about what you learned and the takeaway of a failed project.”

Chances are, by demonstrating your ability to learn from your mistakes and bounce back after a disaster, you'll be more likely to impress a potential employer, Ms. Dwight says. At the very least, you should assuage any concerns they might have.


Let's face it: Sometimes stakeholders set up powerful roadblocks to success, whether by changing their mind mid-project, suddenly tweaking a budget or failing to communicate their needs clearly.

In cases such as these, it may be better to start looking for employment elsewhere or sever the relationship with the client rather than risk another project failure.

“I’ve had to fire clients,” Ms. Dwight acknowledges. “You're there to serve them, but if they can't provide what they have agreed to, it's a no-win situation. You can't make up for their lack of participation.”


Like any seasoned project manager, Kelly O’Neill Dwight, PMP, NextGen Marketing Group, Denver, Colorado, USA, has survived the odd project failure. One particular instance that stands out in her mind is the time she oversaw an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software upgrade.

Despite months of planning, an unforeseen event ground the project to a halt: “Four people in our group came down with a horrible flu, and we had no way to replace them,” Ms. Dwight recalls. “Our client was upset, and it definitely damaged our relationship with them.”

Ms. Dwight quickly launched into corrective action and a risk-management response for damage control, which involved “a lot of client interaction, relationship management and explanation,” she says.

Yet despite successfully completing the ERP upgrade the next month, “in our client's mind, it was still not to their expectations, so the trust was damaged,” she says. “It took probably another six months to really feel as if we were someone they could rely on. The client was less eager to work with us and be receptive when we were making recommendations. We had to put in a lot of extra effort to help restore the health of that relationship.”

To ensure that the client felt its concerns were being addressed, Ms. Dwight had her team hold additional meetings and create detailed status reports. These explained the issues that had caused the delay and indicated how the project was progressing.

In the end, Ms. Dwight says she reaped some valuable lessons from the experience and recognizes that such setbacks are simply part of being a project manager.

Besides, she says, “I honestly believe that I learn more from the failures than from some of my successes.”

If you feel as if you're being handed one outlandishly challenging project after another, take a good hard look at your own employer.

Determine if executives really respect your role as project manager or if their actions are setting you up for one failure after another, says Mr. Blanchette, who is also president of the PMI Canadian Technology Triangle Chapter.

In the end, however, project managers need to be realistic about their capabilities and the likelihood of failure, and not be so quick to beat themselves up over the occasional blow-up.

“It's actually more common for projects not to succeed than it is for them to succeed,” Ms. Dwight attests. “There's almost a level of acceptance among companies that project failures are going to happen. But as long as project managers and team members are learning from their mistakes, then there can be progress in the organization for continuous improvement.”

There's even a bright side of failure, Mr. Robertson says. “I have never come across a really successful project manager who has never failed at some point or other,” he says. “Failure tests your focus and character as a person and as a project manager.” PM




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